By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Two minutes in and you begin to realize this much: With each extra chew, every labored swallow, with every passing second, you're losing. To your right, they're eating much faster than you are. They are shoveling the food in hand over hand, and so are you, or at least trying to, but the crowd is chanting the names of your competitors—the ones the people really came to see—and you are washing down smaller bites with longer swigs of water, wincing in agony just a few spots from the end of the table, remembering that time in '08 when you were seated dead-center and you were the one they cheered for. You count your empty plates, do the math and realize there's no way you down 45 tamales.
The master of ceremonies barks it's been four and a half minutes—"not quite halfway through"—and it feels a little like forever. You notice on your left, toward the end of the table, they're starting to slow down, and what a relief that must be. You reach down, mouth still bursting with the mash of your last three tamales, pick one more off your plate, and—what do you do?
If you're "Nasty" Nate Biller, ranked 18th in the world, the greatest living eater in Texas competing before a hometown crowd, you shove in all the tamale you can fit, clench your palm around your sputtering mouth and eat.
This steamy wet September afternoon on the steps of Lewisville City Hall, you eat just like you've done before, when you were televised on ESPN at Coney Island, downing hot dogs against legends like Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut; like at Red Lobster, when the Endless Shrimp special returned and you went in and ate 400; like at Cici's Pizza where you'd hit the buffet and out-eat three of your high-school friends combined; like at the casino in Colorado just last summer, where the cooks pounded those Rocky Mountain oysters beyond recognition and served them up plain, breaded and fried. You ate 2 pounds and 4 ounces of those veiny greaseballs, and they couldn't even tell you how many testicles it amounted to. You eat, as the straw-hatted hollering shill just told the crowd—one of the few things he's yelled into the mic today that isn't total bullshit—not because you're hungry, or because it feels good, but because eating is what you do.
The crowd's about a hundred strong, peppered with umbrellas for cover from the sun and rain and speckled with signs for eating star Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas. They cheer as the competitors wince. They chant "Eat! Eat! Eat!" and stare up at the stage, watching for someone to hurl.
His face in a grotesque twist, snot and grease mingling beneath his nose, Biller looks like a likely candidate. Folks who've seen him eat before, though, know that's just his style—why they call him "Nasty."
The master of ceremonies, Dave Keating, a part-time DJ from New York and an official with the International Federation of Competitive Eating, picks up speed as time winds down. "The tamales are cooked, but the passion is raw, ladies and gentlemen," he shouts. As the clouds part, he leads the crowd in chanting the 10-second countdown. All the while, Biller eats. Keating calls time, and staff from the Dallas Tortilla and Tamale Factory, which sponsored the contest, set about counting each eater's tamales. "I have seen the Great Wall of China," Keating shouts. "I have been to the Taj Mahal. I have never seen something as great as what I have just witnessed here today." A Western Days Festival official tells the crowd to stick around for the staged gunfight up next.
Biller's far from the only one at that table who eats like this—competitively, professionally, to the point of failure—and that stiff competition has made it tough for him to crack a top-three finish lately. Today he finishes a half-tamale shy of fourth, with 32.5 tamales in 10 minutes. The two best eaters today are Thomas, with 56, and Tim "Eater X" Janus, with 59. (Janus set the record here in 2007, with 71.) Lewisville Mayor Dean Ueckert walks out in a cowboy hat, gives Janus a hearty handshake onstage and hands him a $1,500 check.
This society of eaters, with more than a decade of shared history, a complex social order and a special way of validating such obviously unhealthy behavior—health is really beside the point—is also what keeps Biller out on the circuit most weekends, on an expenses-sometimes-paid tour of America's small-town festivals, shopping malls and Indian casinos. It takes a certain kind of sickness to join a fraternity like this, but what matters now is that they've found each other.
So he'll be back onstage next weekend trying to do it again, with sandwiches this time, at the State Fair of Texas alongside two of the sport's elite eaters: third-ranked Patrick Bertoletti, the mohawked chef from Chicago, and the hot dog king, Joey Chestnut himself. Biller will wave to the crowd and soak up its approval as he plows a sub sandwich into his face. But right now, Nasty needs a nap.Read:"Eater X" Edges Sonya Thomas for Lewisville Tamale Title